Record $651 million schools budget unveiled

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Posted August 3, 2020 | By Brad Rogers, Executive Editor

The Marion County School Board paused from talking about how to safely reopen schools amid a pandemic long enough Tuesday evening to receive the school district’s proposed 2020-21 budget, a record $651 million spending package.

There is a lot of good news in the tentative budget presented by school system Chief Financial Officer Theresa Boston-Ellis. For example:

The proposed budget is 9.8 percent bigger than last year. Boston-Ellis attributed some of that to savings to the schools being closed for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the budget is going up, the proposed millage rate – 7.018 mills – is .166 mills lower than last year. Meanwhile, property values in Marion County went up 8.14 percent, which Boston-Ellis said resulted in $7.7 million in new funding.

Local property taxes account for $152 million of the total school budget. The 1-mill special school tax approved by voters accounted for almost $22 million in the budget and is responsible for about 400 jobs.

The Legislature earlier this year approved funding to raise teacher salaries to a minimum of $47,500. While the funding was approved, Boston -Ellis said the $7.2 million Marion County received will not be enough to reach that target, although raises are still likely.

About $15.5 million comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The School Board now begins the process of finalizing a budget and is planning two workshop meetings on Aug. 6 and 13, respectively. A public hearing on the final proposal is slated for Sept. 8.

Boston-Ellis, who said Marion County Public Schools is anticipating 425 more students this year, told the board there were several steep challenges facing the School Board and the schools in the coming year. The most obvious, of course, is reopening schools during a pandemic. In addition to the health and safety concerns, the schools will also test the district’s ability to provide essential items for classrooms and schools, including teachers, cleaning supplies and enough personnel to ensure schools and busses are clean and students are obeying the rules.

Another challenge is the lack of any Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, funds. PECO funds are collected by the state from utility bill taxes. For the past several years, the Legislature has voted to pump all of the state’s PECO into charter schools, as it did this year, so public schools have no help from the state for school building repairs. Boston-Ellis estimated Marion County faces $350 million in repairs, upgrades and renovations in the next five years alone.

Buying new technology and hardware and software will also be a challenge with more children taking online classes. More than one-third of Marion County students lack computers and/or hot spots so they can take online classes at home, and the board has said it will provide a computer to any student who needs one to do schoolwork.

Continuing to modernize Marion County’s ever-aging school bus fleet also remains a goal that Boston-Ellis said may be hard to address this year. She also warned the School Board about lingering Safe Schools mandates – resulting from school and other mass shootings — that have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic but remain mandates from the state, nonetheless.

The School Board voted 5-0 to accept the tentative budget with no comment.

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